I am starting the Saturday ritual upstairs of moving the old boxes from the new bedroom back into the old bedroom when the doorbell rings. I’m not startled when it comes. They say old sounds are like this. I move to the window and call out to Lara. Her head cocks back and her grey streaks follow as if caught on wind. I take this as a sign of good will.
She comes in, walks the fourteen steps up, and says, Terry, boy, you moving again?
I am carrying boxes packed with relics from our time together, those which I cannot seem to let go and so I move them and move them again, a process that’s taken me three Saturdays and hasn’t progressed much.
Repacking, I say.
Strange. You have a smoke?
A photo sticks out from a small box. Lara says that’s me and she’s right. It’s from before she got sick, taken in front of Mills Hotels last winter, the graying hair with still more brown than grey, her spine sluggish and rounded, hot breath mixing in the pitiable air. She looks like she had said something important.
You kept that? she asks.
Not for nothing, but it’s good. It’s a good picture.
And then she says what I’m thinking – Why are all your pictures of me in the winter? We transfix our eyes to another shot – Harvard Square, the two of us wincing in heavy snow, looking like mother and son, my hood rubbing against hers for warmth. One of her friends snapped it, sent it in the mail as a gift.
I put the box down. There’s not a lot of time to get my work done, but still some. Lara’s here and I feel like the lone cloud itching to get home to her.
We smoke and Lara coughs in fits. Occasionally she throws up her arms like she’s flinging a glass. She asks for coffee and I fetch her some, wondering if it’s all this coffee that starts her dizzy spells or thwarts them. She licks her lips, not because it’s cold, but a result from the medicine.
Why are all our days like the ones before?
I’m defensive and haven’t slept. From the corner of my eye I spot a caterpillar inching forward under the dining room table.
You’re the one who insists on coming here, I say. Your days are like no one else’s.
I fold under the force of her buoyant whim. Four months ago it used to bother me, this stopping by and staying until the early afternoon. Always this way even when we were together, always my house and never hers, because, she admitted once, until marriage, a man shouldn’t see an old maid’s accommodations and even then. And every Sunday when she would come over donned in one gown or the other, I suspected she expected me to propose, and that it was her search for youth that made her gravitate to my house, and my foolishness that has kept me here.
Today she shows her matriarchal side, arranges the mess of items in the kitchen in a way she sees fit.
You live like my ex-husband does, she taunts.
And you visit him every day?
She grimaces because it’s the only way she knows how to laugh.
We take reprieve under the large fan in the den, not talking, watching its motor hit a snag every five seconds and then catch itself before sputtering out. The world looks precious from here; it’s still early and work hasn’t felt like work, not yet.
You look urgent, Lara says.
I’m not fiddling, but I can’t disagree. Something in my eyes. The fan reflecting in them. Lara once told me, you’re young, Terry, but you’re the most ambitious person I know. Always chasing, and maybe that’s what makes you young.
A good thing I thought and still think, you just can’t expect so much. Lovers are like your friends, they are.
Which reminds me. We’re out of luck and time and I’ve got work to do so I excuse myself the way I would’ve liked to in the past and couldn’t, all business and no fanfare.
Can I sit here while you work? she asks. Turn the TV on or something?
She takes off her flats and socks and lays across the couch. Her unpolished toes curl under the fan’s breeze, her age works backwards stretching up to her face. I’ve never noticed the age in her face the way my friends used to. In the summer, they’d come over and remark to me in passing, “She looks so much older than you…how old?” But now it’s winter and they don’t come around anymore, or hardly ever call.
I find the lightest box to lift and eye its contents – a paper fan, a book on birds for bird enthusiasts (untouched), two fur hats.
How’s work been? she asks.
Alright, but you know Luc, still a prick. I’d say he needs a girl but he’s already got that horse.
I want to launch into a tirade against Luc, citing office parties and the contemptible scent of predatory males, how I am not sure if the pardon Luc gave me from the office is permanent or temporary or if I really care anyway, but Lara clarifies:
No, I meant this work. These boxes.
And Lara knows fine and well Julianne is moving in today. She does. But she can’t stop asking; it reminds her that Julianne isn’t here yet and we still have morning to contemplate our angles together.
When Lara and I split in September, I tried to politely comb the scene, said sit here please and please don’t be mad, could you try, please, to understand that Julianne gives my life meaning. She cried for the first and only time since I’ve known her. And then she laughed when she considered my futile rambling and how I sounded more shifty than honest, and announced, Terry, I’m sick.
We met on a train car, I went on. She was carrying a sports bag. Look, I’m trying to be even with you, it’s not as if I think sick?
Dying. Never been before. They tell me you get sick first – nose that won’t stop running, cold sweats, chills, swelling, nothing tastes the same. It will never taste the same. Even water.
She cried again and I held her in our abundant living room (replete with all our shared items) and told her, I can’t be with you but I can take care of you.
Such is our way. But this afternoon Julianne is moving in and all of Lara’s boxes will have to be moved back to the old bedroom. Out of site, where Julianne won’t care to look.
What will happen to me? she asks after a moment.
I think of capacity, of dark space and unfurling time. Would Lara simply float up when she goes? Or would there be other occurrences – knocks, maybe. A lawyer who says, I know you, you once had it in your heart to love her and so she’s left you some things -can I please come in?
Would Julianne answer the door?
But I tell her nothing will happen. Nobody ever knows what happens.
And she says, I mean now. What will happen now?
We go on, I tell her. Except I’ll come to your place when Julianne’s at work. It’s the only way it’ll happen.
Julianne, Lara repeats in a tone as lithe and blissful as her scent –fresh like the first time we met. She says it and I hear foreign tones plunge like sweat beads. I say it, too, this time under my breath, and its nativity returns.
Time unfurls again. I picture the walk to Lara’s apartment –the cold unyielding and oppressive, the Boston streets like miniature storefront displays with everyone shut in, shut in. The day Lara revealed to me her cancer, we walked these streets side by side. I hadn’t touched her arm or held her hand; there wasn’t closeness like you’d expect after misfortune and that’s because I had already let her go in my mind. She was destined to fight this and every future battle alone.
Before that day, I’d only seen her apartment twice. Once the first time we made love and were horny and closer to her apartment anyway and couldn’t fight the urge to stave it off, even though she insisted let’s go to yours, and the second when we made love again (at my place) and I had insisted let’s go to yours and do it again because I can’t stand how drafty my place gets, it’s like living in a cellar. So we went because I plead and in the end she relented, even though she said on the way back (as we were arm in arm) sometimes it seems as if he still lives there, it gives me the creeps. And I said who and she said her ex-husband, whose name I still don’t know or care to ask about.
So I spend time imagining and in my imagination Lara’s apartment is an open studio lined with first edition books and Otis Redding records, where some posters from her film production days humbly decorate the walls. It is clean and ample; the bathrooms have towels that seamlessly match the paint.
What I remember: Lara’s apartment always has scaffolding below its porous windows. Her living room is a receptacle for the aimless hours of human life. Too much TV, too many culture magazines, too many. A camera sits idly on a chair across the room. There are prescription bottles, tons of them, even ones from before the constant dizzy spells.
I remember and Lara scratches at her eyebrow. She asks, when did it become so hard for you to leave here?
I don’t think of when but of the contrary, of how on the day I did leave, I met Julianne. A Sunday in early September, when I enjoyed the necessity of the warmth and was catching a downbound train to watch the pick-up tennis matches in the park. Her brand new Nikes grabbed me first with those white socks hiked up, then the unused gleam of her tennis racket, her striped shirt almost matching its closely checkered pattern. A college graduation present from my parents, she told me, and then pointed to her sports bag. This too, she added. I immediately thought of how Lara has a similar looking bag, the one she kept in my house in the bathroom closet, that inside the bag was not athletic gear but laundry that she had once brought over to do and then completely neglected. And then I thought of how Lara was too old to have kids and that there would be no reason to ever seize that bag from its vacant existence – there would be no sports games, no sleepaway camps. I told Julianne I’m going to the park too, that I don’t play but I’ll watch.
When did it become so hard for you to leave here? I heard Lara the first time but it takes a second time to impact.
When all my friends left, I finally say. I’m sad to hear myself say it because I could simply blame the winter.
Where’d they go?
The usual places: Nashville, London, Prague, Cairo, Chrissie’s in the Sudan, George is in Huancavelica, Peru. Peace Corps.
I watch the window. The trees and houses look like fragments reflected by the huge glass. Across the street I can make out the heads of an old couple as they crawl past. I try to look through them but the bright afternoon crystallizes an image above their blended hair: boxes, four that I’ve neglected to bring upstairs, resting behind me.
I should move these, I begin.
Okay, let me help, Lara offers.
For once I don’t resist. If that’s how it’s going to be I think. She lifts the biggest one and I let her lead up the steps. Her shoulders look cavernous but she is doing okay. I count her breaths, one for each heavy step.
Three, four, five…
Feel like I needed this, she goes. Too much TV is no good for anyone.
Nine, ten, four more now.
I got it, got it.
We reach the top. Lara’s breaths reduce to one long exhale, like she’s smiling through her teeth. Can I get that now? I ask.
Fuck off Terry, she says while laughing.
She leads again past the new bedroom with its curtains drawn and bed peeled over to the old bedroom where we used to lay and divvy up our time and possessions. She slows her walk, pauses at the door, grips the frame with awkward precision, and then collapses.
It’s hardly a motion. Not a heavy breath or whimpering moan wasted. She’s on the floor, pale and whispering, Grab the meds from my purse in the blue container.
I hear, Grant me mercy from this earth, Terry, how’d you go and find her?
I stumble over a toolbox in my rush downstairs, the one not holding tools but Lara’s letters. But not letters, either, notes she had jauntily left around the house. The kind with real meaning, like rain despite the commotion it makes. They spill across the hallway.
I find her purse on the couch next to her sweater and socks. The blue container sticks out of it so there’s no need for a harried search party.
Just in case, I think, considering the container and its blue contents.
But then I think seriously:
Call 911. Tell them to hurry. No, don’t say that, they know to hurry. Just call them. Get ready to tell them her condition – squamous cell – what’s it called again? Get ready for the medical history onslaught: has she been acting funny today? When was her last medical visit? Is she unconscious? When was her last dizzy spell you noticed? When was the her last dizzy spell you noticed or she told you about, and on and on and on and
I sprint to give her the meds first and find her sitting up straight, strangely conscious, her hands cupped over her straightened knees. Right sleeve is up and I spot a red mark where I used to kiss and where they’ve recently inserted a needle.
So much for that she says, before I even grasp what’s happening. Another dizzy spell but nothing serious, she continues, Dr. Knapp said that’ll happen. I’ll still take those meds though. I’m okay, I’m okay.
She opens her palm and I take two pills from the container and place them there, hold my position for a few seconds while I press them into her skin, and kiss her.
She is neither annoyed nor pleased. She hands me a post-it note which I begin to read until she interjects and reads it to me:
Sink leaks uncontrollably. Kept me up since 4 am. You sleep like the wind.
Love and all that noise!
The kind of note I would have engulfed with the callow spirit of my past. The kind the lonely dream about because there’s permanence to this elasticity. I kiss her again and in its brief pasture imagine Lara and me making love in the new bedroom, amid the boxes that are being moved for Julianne’s arrival. I kiss her again but she doesn’t kiss me back, and I see her struggle with something in a moment most people struggle with over a lifetime.
It’s already late afternoon and we’re waiting in the kitchen for Mike to come pick her up. She says he’s a cousin visiting from Lincoln, Nebraska and she’s volunteered to show him all the tourist things to do in Boston. I hear her on the phone: You have a rent-a-car? Great! The city is a chunk of highway from here but we’ll make a night of it. Boston Commons, Fenway Park, sure, all of it. Gives me an excuse to see it one last – okay then, I’ll see you in a few.
If Mike is an actual cousin and not another man, a longtime, gentle friend say, then I feel like a fallow ex-lover. What if Lara took to my advance kindly, kissed me with those cracked lips in the dark hallway, let me undo her bra and flatten her wrinkles? What if we had moved to the new bedroom which she hasn’t been in since the makeover and screwed right on the bed? Or worse, what if making love to Lara was making love to her sickness, what if it was like watching two people die?
But right now, Lara’s ghostlike figure is transposed into a sensation I could love forever and it’s miserable to watch her make plans without me.
I say, it could be this way forever and she replies it won’t.
Still self-protective, I ask her what the doctors say.
We have time. When you start smelling a rotten stench, then you’ll know. Mike should be here any moment. Then she says what I expect her to say: You can come with us, he won’t mind.
With your cousin? No, but thanks. It sounds rude but I don’t intend it that way.
I’m only saying, so she says.
And I want to tell her about my friends and how they haven’t really left although they may as well have but I say instead, we live in a transitory world, you can’t expect so much.
You can expect a stranger. She’ll be here shortly, right? I should get -
I excuse myself again, this time with grace and say, if you wouldn’t mind I’ve got to finish moving the rest of your stuff out.
The boxes are moved to the old bedroom without even a creak through the house. This takes me two more hours after Lara has left and I’m careful not to ruminate and uncover old memories.
Julianne will be here shortly and I’ve got to get dressed, throw on a nice jacket, and prepare dinner – a flank steak with roasted beats and sautéed mushrooms. My favorite.
Dusk forms an uneven shadow spread in the kitchen and living room, highlighting the filthy parts of the house and excluding what I’ve kept clean. The ceiling fan stays on and cuts through the silence, and it surprises even me. I seek clues that tell me I’ve been here today.
I’m interrupted by the bell. Julianne’s here, and it’s the first time I recognize the cold. I turn up the thermoset to 74 degrees and do one final check before going down to answer the call. I spot the tool box lying haphazardly in the upstairs hallway and quickly move it to the old bedroom.
I answer the door with zeal. It says I’m a new, new man. Come in.
The person I’m facing is not Julianne. I cannot recognize this somebody’s face, but the scent is remorselessly clear. Dewy grass permanently etched in jeans. Skin like rusted copper. It says I’ve been places and I’ll go again. Someone I’ve heard about perhaps.
He says my name. Its emphasis is garish like a copper building.
I return a grim hello and without hinge he says, Mind if I come in?
Sure, unless you’re a lawyer, I crack. He says he’s not and follows behind me.
We walk through the darkening hallway until we are face to face by the backdoor.
Pointing to a closet I say, Here.
This is it? he asks. He shuffles in front of me and opens its door, slowly as if not to wake anybody. I’m glad he does this; it makes the moment seem real.
Inside the closet are a couple of spring jackets and a big cardboard box taped securely. The tape around its exterior is perfectly crossed and its label intact. The man is frail but grabs the box with such efficacy, I’m impressed. I say, got more upstairs if you feel up to it.
I thought you said this was the only one, he returns.
You’re right, yes, it is. Different boxes, I say.
He shrugs and my deplorable opinion of him resurfaces.
I’ll be going then, he says. Thanks, I guess. He tries to make a joke out of it. What do you say in these situations, really?
I smile too and his amiability reappears for a spark, shorter than that. Tell me, I say, how’s she doing? After all this? I gesture generally around the house, but I’m eying the armoire where Julianne’s mittens are perched, almost out of sight completely.
Well I guess that’s a difference of opinion, he says. I say she’s doing fine by me and you might say the opposite. It’s like that, you know.
I don’t answer him even though he’s right. I lead him through the silence and back out into the cold, nod to him as he’s leaving. He tenderly shuts the door behind him. Checks it twice. Some friend.
I’m tired and haven’t slept. I sense noise entering the house and I cannot shut my eyes, as if this would help. I take reprieve under it and sit for an hour, maybe an hour, the whole time thinking now if Lara were here she’d console me. I wonder if she’ll come back tonight but I know it’s not yet morning and time is ample.
In the morning we’ll sit and smoke and I’ll feed her those dizzy pills and serve her coffee to wash them down with. I’ll ask about Mike her real cousin or Mike her not too distant, genial friend or possible ex-husband who comes around on a convenience basis to take her to the city. And she’ll report back that Mike is really a fantastic, kind guy but with one seeping flaw and I’ll hear this and lay back, deep and proud, before I sleep.